Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Royal Family and the Conflict over Modernity

Freddie Sayers thinks the fight in the royal family is about much more than the average celebrity blow-up:
The almighty row about Harry and Meghan isn’t just about the behaviour of the junior prince and his American bride. Bigger, harder to define feelings are afoot — and I don’t mean racism, or snobbery, or misogyny, none of which is really driving this disaster. . . .

Today, we are told, in a drawing room at Sandringham, a showdown is taking place between Meghan, the unhappy American princess dialing in from Canada, and the 93-year-old Queen — mediated by their various princes. It would be hard to find two more suitable representatives than these two women of the clashing philosophies that, in different ways, have dominated British and European politics for the past decade. Tradition versus progress, duty versus self-actualisation, community versus commerce, nation versus globalisation.
Polls show that most Britons think the Sussexes have the right to go off on their own if they want to, but on the other hand they also many people want to strip them of their titles and all their income if they do so. Go if you want, people seem to be saying, but don't look for help from us.

This is the part that really interested me:
On one level, the British public have become liberals with amazing completeness in just over a generation. From the ‘Red Wall’ in the North to affluent London, from young to old, we have accepted and grown fond of a world of individual rights, self-realisation and freedom from judgment. By the logic of this world-view, there can be no doubt: of course the Sussexes must be free to do as they please and shake off the constraints of their elders. Who would stand in the way of a young family’s search for happiness?

But on another level, there is a growing fear that this same logic, in its relentless ratchet towards ‘progress’, will inadvertently destroy the things we hold most dear. It’s an uneven conflict because where the liberal world view is coherent, defensible and ostensibly virtuous, many of the things it threatens are hard to defend in the same terms. This mismatch makes people defensive and angry, as the Sussexes are now discovering.
I think this is exactly right and has been since the 1700s at least. The program of the liberal Enlightenment can be expressed logically and defined in plain prose: freedom, legal equality, economic growth. The conservative program is often ultimately about things that are hard to put into words. Most British monarchists could not explain very well why they want a royal family, which Thomas Paine long ago pointed out is an absurd notion:
How a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into.
But people know that having one just feels right.

I'm not saying that all conservatism is emotional; much of it is based on a justified skepticism about grand ideas for making things better, a reluctance to trust outsiders with your own security, and a determination to hold onto what you have. But I do believe that much of it is about wanting things to feel the way they always have. To many people, tradition makes life feel better and safer, and none of your arguments about economic growth or individual rights will make much headway against that.


Michael said...

It just feels right...

From today's Old Testament reading...

"The people, however, refused to listen to Samuel’s warning and said,
“Not so! There must be a king over us.
We too must be like other nations,
with a king to rule us and to lead us in warfare
and fight our battles.” (1 Samuel 8:19-20)

The feeling has a long history.

David said...


While your and Sayers' analysis holds for the period from the Enlightenment until about 1870, it most decidedly does not hold for the period of mass politics. The latter has created a Right wing that is not just, and not mostly, about the sort of Tolkienesque, Little England conservatism you're describing. The Right-wing of the age of mass politics is a complex phenomenon that has never, to my knowledge, even by those who've spent their working lives studying it, been quite effectively analyzed. But it exists, and, I'm sorry, it's not just a sad, rear-guard sort of nostalgia. Jeffrey Herf's phrase, "reactionary modernism" comes as close as anything to describing it, although that misses the revolutionary aspect that is a part of all dynamic modern right-wing movements, including both Brexit and Trumpism. These movements are real, they're recurring, they're important, their anger is an essential part of them (rather than merely a reaction to the triumphant march of liberalism), and history shows they're not gotten rid of by simply thinking of them as children acting out who will get over it one day, if only we show forbearance in the meantime.

G. Verloren said...

Emotions are powerful things, and untempered by reason they are destructive.

It's fine to feel strongly about something, but if the facts of reality logically suggest that your emotions are false, immoral, unjust, or otherwise problematic, you have a moral and social obligation to accept that the problem is with you, not with the world at large.

You feel really strongly that we should have a king, but you have no rational argument to back up your feelings, and are opposed by quite rational arguments why we should not have a king? Well, it probably hurts, but you need to admit when you're wrong. Kings are not compatible with the broader desire for a more just world, and nostalgia, tradition, and all the rest are not valid defenses.

Of course, that's easier said than done. Conservativism, at its core, is a philosophy dedicated to allowing people to avoid changing their minds when the world proves them wrong.

Feeling unjustifiably angry? Don't listen to other people telling you to control your emotions and master your anger - double down on the anger instead!

Harboring a deeply irrational hatred of some other group of people? Don't try to understand those people and recognize that your behavior is wrong - double down on your hatred, because anyone who says you are wrong is part working for the enemy!

Scared of vaccines, despite every reputable scientist in the entire world telling you they're not a threat? Don't look at the actual data and try to understand the thing you fear - listen to conspiracy theories from people who are just as emotional and irrational as you are! Doctors can't be trusted, because science wants to restrain your emotions with "logic"! Calm people are clearly crazy! Ranting and raving people are the sane ones!

David said...


While your description, "a philosophy dedicated to allowing people to avoid changing their minds when the world proves them wrong," certainly applies to resistance to change, it doesn't explain dynamic, mass Right-wing movements of the modern era, which are about much, much more than merely holding onto the past.

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